We are all familiar with images of Mary as Church but I would like to suggest that the best model we have of church is actually the holy family itself: Jesus, Mary and Joesph.
The importance of the virgin birth for church
There are two profound truths rooted in history and theology that point to Mary as church. One is Mary’s ‘Yes!’ to the invitation of God to bear the Christ Child. The Church is also invited, on a daily basis, to say ‘Yes!’ to giving birth to God, to cooperate with the birthing of the Christ in history. The other truth is the ‘perpetual virginity’ of both Mary and the Church as a sign that both are God’s possession and are responding to God’s initiative-his overshadowing generative power.
Although, Mary’s Fiat! and her perpetual virginity are central theological truths that are core for Roman Catholic Christianity they are also rooted in historical fact.
Some of the theological truths concerning Mary and the church are as follows: Jesus gave us his Mother to be a Mother to us. At the crucifixion Jesus commanded the Beloved Disciple to look upon Mary and to consider her his own mother. Jesus commanded the Beloved Disciple: (John 19: 27) “Behold your mother!”.
Like a Mother, the church “…brings forth sons, who are conceived by the Holy Spirit and born of God, to a new and immortal life.” (CCC, #507). Just as with Mary, the Church’s fecundity is due to an initiative from God. The Church’s response to God’s initiative is a joyful yes! God does the work of generation. He plants the seeds in his bride and spouse the church. The Church constitutes the fertile soil in which the seeds can grow into maturity bearing good fruit.
Just as Mary’s Yes! to God’s invitation inaugurated the realization of God’s entrance into history, so also the Church’s Yes! to Christ makes the church the preeminent channel through which grace flows to human beings via the sacraments.
Theologically Mary’s mystical union with the church helps us to understand the fruitful chastity of the church. In its fidelity to Christ the church can raise up saints and witnesses to God. Just as Mary’s purity allowed her to give birth to Jesus, the church’s faithful virginity engenders Christ in the Eucharist.
How does the church bring forth her children? As in the case of Mary (Luke 1: 35) the power of the most high overshadows her. Revelation 12 (1-2) tells us that he beheld Mary/Church as “…a great sign appeared in heaven: a woman clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet, and on her head a crown of twelve stars. She was pregnant and was crying out in birth pains and the agony of giving birth.” The Church’s production of saints is not all sweetness and light. It begins with a period of God’s ‘overshadowing” and then an agony –an agony like that of giving birth. Then we get Christ born again in the lives of the saints.
As mentioned above Mary’s virginity is linked symbolically or mystically with the Church’s fidelity to Christ and it is at once a theological and a historical truth.
In short, there are strong scriptural and theological reasons for taking Mary as a model for church. But there are strong historical, scriptural and theological reasons to take the holy family as a model for church.
The virgin birth and the holy family
This family was of course special, beginning with the virgin birth. Just as Jesus was born to a virginal mother so too is the Church as mother giving virginal birth to its children. With respect to the historical data, examination of the scriptures suggests that Jesus was Mary’s only child. The fact that Mary was never charged with adultery or infidelity (despite the many enemies of Jesus and the early church) suggests that no-one at that time could point to an affair to explain the child. In the Gospel accounts of Mary’s conception there is no hint that sexual intercourse with either God or man took place. This fact significantly differentiates this ‘conception’ from pagan myths concerning sexual affairs (often a rape) between the gods and mortals. Instead of a sexual encounter we have the word “overshadow” which was similar to the expression used in the Old Testament (O.T.) to refer to God’s presence in the Ark of the Covenant.
But yet Mary’s conception is not like anything we find in the O.T sources either. When God intervenes to help an old or barren woman in the O.T. it is always due to the request and entreaties of the childless parents. In Mary’s case she not only was not looking to get pregnant but she was very likely awe-struck and terrified by the abrupt irruption into her life of the initiative of God. You can see some of this wholesome awe and fear in the presence of the Angel in Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s painting of the scene in his ‘The Annunciation”. Joesph too will express this kind of awe in the presence of divine revelation when he is visited by the supernatural in his dreams.
But back to the church as giving virginal birth to its initiates and members. The virginal conception of Jesus, furthermore, is attested in Matthew, Luke (infancy narratives) and John (1:13) and by early Church fathers like Ignatius of Antioch. In the gospel of Mark, Jesus is referred to as ‘the son of Mary’ which is very odd given the patriarchal culture of Second Temple Judaism. Usually a boy child is referred to as son a father such as ‘Jesus ben Joesph’ (son of Father so and so)….
The New Testament in several places (Mk. 3:31-35; 6:3; Jn. 2:12; 7:3-9; Gal. 1:19; 1 Cor.9:5) mentions brothers and/or sisters of Jesus. It may be that Jesus was the only son of Mary or it may be as many scholars believe that Jesus was Mary’s first child conceived before she married Joseph. Now Joseph either had children of his own from a previous marriage (the position of the church) or he and Mary had new children. Either way the brothers and sisters of the Lord refer to Joseph’s offspring from a previous marriage or the offspring of Mary and Joseph that were born after Jesus was born to Mary before the marriage. The latter is hard to believe given the fact that the brothers and sisters of Jesus were very likely older than Jesus (it is very unlikely for younger siblings to command an older sibling to stop his public ministry). So Jesus must have been born after his step brothers and sisters thus indicating that Mary had had Jesus before she had married Joseph and Joseph had had children before he had met Mary. Thus we are left with no explanation of how Jesus was born to Mary. There is no mention of a biological father of Jesus in any of the ancient sources.
Consistent with the ideas proposed above and to preserve the idea of the perpetual virginity of Mary, Epiphanius in the fourth century proposed that the “brothers and sisters” of Jesus were step brothers and sisters of Jesus from a first marriage of Joseph. Saint Jerome in the fifth century argued that the “brothers and sisters” were really cousins of Jesus.
In his paper “The Brothers and Sisters of Jesus in Ecumenical Perspective” the distinguished biblical scholar John P. Meier, uses historical – critical methods as well as philological data to argue that the brothers and sisters of Jesus were very likely true siblings of Jesus. He says that his goal in writing the paper was to show that the historical –critical method can produce results that people of all faiths and good will will accept because they can see how the results were arrived at. Thus Meier suggests that ‘the brothers and sisters’ issue may be a kind of test case in ecumenical dialog. Meier thinks that his findings can potentially facilitate ecumenical dialog between Catholics and Protestants.
His basic argument appears to rely on philological data. He argues that the term most often used to designate the brothers of the Lord “adelphos” is used most often elsewhere in ancient Christian sources to mean only true siblings, not step brothers or cousins. Therefore this datum adds weight to the idea that the ‘brothers and sisters’ of the Lord were true siblings–thus implying that no virginal birth of Jesus occurred. This argument seems weak to me as it can always be argued that the meaning of adelphos is conferred contextually and context. In addition, Baucham notes that of the 343 occurrences of adelphos in the NT, 268 are used in a metaphorical sense-NOT to designate true siblings.
But interestingly Meier begins his paper not with this philological argument but with an analysis of the evangelist Matthew’s ‘problem’ when composing his gospel. How was Matthew to deal with the tradition of the virginity of Mary and still make Jesus a ‘son of David’? Mary was not of the house of David, yet everyone knew that Jesus was Mary’s son. Matthew’s solution was to have Joseph, who was of the House of David (after being instructed by an angel in a dream), to marry Mary and adopt Jesus as his son.
It is difficult to see why Meier sees this Matthean ‘problem’ as support for the position that Jesus’ brothers and sisters were true siblings of Jesus. Using the criterion of embarassment for example would suggest that the early church would have loved having Jesus be Joseph ’s natural son thus establishing, unproblematically, that Jesus was of the House of David. Instead the evangelist has to deal with the well-known fact that Jesus was the son of Mary-not the son of any man from the House of David, Joseph included. The tradition (that Jesus was the son of Mary) was an inconvenient fact for the early church, yet it was preserved despite the very strong desire to have Jesus be fathered by a man from the House of David. That preservation in the face of strong ideological pressure to downplay the ‘son of Mary’ fact speaks to the historical veracity of the fact that jesus was Mary’s son.
Now to be known as the son of Mary implies that Jesus had no known father—else he would have been known as son of some father …, even if that father was deceased. If she had been dishonored via a rape or some related calamity then that tradition would have been known and Mary would have probably been stigmatized. But there is no evidence of any stigma haunting Mary. In addition if Mary had suffered a trauma like rape that fact would have probably been used against the early Christians but even though calumnies were hurled against Mary and Jesus they never gained traction probably because there was not enough data there to support a case.
Meier argued that many Protestant exegetes are correct to read Matthew 1: 25 ‘He knew her not but kept her a virgin until she gave birth to a Son; and he called His name Jesus.’ as possibly implying that Mary and Joseph had sexual relations after Jesus was born. This would imply, of course, that the siblings of Jesus were true siblings born after Jesus. Similarly Meirer argues that Mark 6:3 and Matt 13: 55 are most naturally interpreted as treating the brothers and sisters of Jesus as true siblings. Meirer argues that the way Mary and the brothers of Jesus are treated together as a unit in Matt 12:46 and Mark 3:31 suggests that Mary and the brothers are blood relations of one another and thus that Mary was true mother of the brothers. But as pointed out by many other biblical scholars (including Kereszty, p. 83) it is unlikely that younger brothers of a sibling would remonstrate against an older brother publicly in ancient Jewish society. The ‘brothers’ were therefore likely older than Jesus and born before Jesus to Joseph in his first marriage.
In his “The Brother and Sisters of Jesus: An Epiphanian Response.” Richard Bauckham takes to task arguments John P. Meier makes in his: “The Brothers and Sisters of Jesus in Ecumenical Perspective.” Bauckham appears to be concerned not only with Meier’s conclusions that the NT evidence is most consistent with the claim that the brothers and sisters of Jesus were true siblings rather than step-siblings, but also with Meier’s philological methodology which Bauckham calls the ‘linguistic argument’.
As we have seen above Meier argued that when the Greek term adelphos (brother) is used to refer to Jesus’ brothers it is almost always used literally and when it is used literally it almost always mean blood siblings. It virtually never means step-brother or cousin. Thus, since in the NT adelphos when used literally virtually always mean blood brother, Jesus’ ‘brothers’ were true siblings (and Mary did not remain a virgin after the birth of Jesus).
But Bauckham points out that Meier’s methodological assertion that the general NT usage of a word (e.g. adelphos in this instance) exclusively determines its meaning (e.g. blood bothers) has the bizarre effect of excluding examination of word meanings in non-NT sources such as in extant pagan sources.
Bauckham points out that in extant pagan sources ‘adelphos’ was very often used to refer to family relationships other than blood relations or full brother. There are many Greek words in the NT that usually have one meaning but occasionally have one another. If we were to apply Meier’s methodological exclusion of non-NT linguistic sources when exploring potential word meanings then we would be at a loss to understand a large array of key NT terms. One example Bauckham gives is ‘end’ which usually means ‘end times’ but occasionally means tax! A better example is use of the term ‘parents’ to designate Joseph and Mary. Now the NT term for parents usually means blood relation parents but in the case of Mary and Joseph the evangelists use the term parents but then explicitly deny that Joseph was Jesus’s biological father! Thus Meier’s methodological linguistic criterion fails in this key instance.
With respect to the historical data, Bauckham argues that the earliest traditions are Epiphanian (i.e. that the brothers and sisters of Jesus are step-siblings) and that the earliest sources are consistent with the idea that they preserved an historical memory of Jesus as the sole son of Mary. In Mark 6:3 the people of Nazareth call Jesus the ‘son of Mary’ not ‘son of Joseph ’. Bauckham rightly argues that this fact needs to be explained given a) the fact that patriarchal societies generally call males son of… and 2) the early church wanted to associate Jesus with the House of David and this could not be done if Jesus was known as ‘son of Mary’ as Mary was not of the house of David apparently. Bauckham argues that this ‘son of Mary’ motif indicates that Joseph was not Jesus’ biological father. In the OT when men are given ‘son of …mother’s name’ it is usually done to distinguish sons by one wife from sons by another wife. This was probably the case in Jesus’ time as well. Jesus was known as ‘son of Mary’ because he was not the biological son of Joseph.
For Jesus to be considered the Messiah he had to come from, or be of the House of David. But he was known to be from Nazareth and be a son of Mary. When Joseph adopted Jesus after espousing Mary, Jesus legally became a son of Joseph and therefore a son of the House of David because Joseph could trace his lineage back to the House of David.
Both Matthew and Luke provide genealogies of Jesus traced through Joseph’s line and that therefore include David as one of Jesus’ ancestors. Both evangelists claim that Jesus was born in Bethlehem, the city of David.
Interestingly Jesus himself seems to eschew the title Son of David as he apparently preferred the title ‘Son of man’. He apparently did not see himself as leading a political restoration of the House of David. Instead he was concerned to announce, show, facilitate and reveal the imminent arrival of the Kingdom of God which he felt was irrupting into history
Kereszty (p. 87) points out that when Joseph named Mary’s son he legally and officially became the Father of Jesus. At that point Joseph was considered Jesus real father with all the rights and obligations accruing thereto to Jesus. In ancient Jewish society the father’s estate would very likely go to the first-born son of the Father. Thus by adoption Jesus became a member of the House of David.
Mary and Joesph and the special destiny of the church
Just as Mary’s consent to have the child facilitated salvation history (to say the least) so too Joseph’s consent to adopt the child facilitated salvation history. Joseph’s act of adoption was his consent to obey God’s command to take possession and responsibility for the child Jesus and his mother. Joseph protected the child and his mother from the slaughter of the innocents by taking Jesus and Mary into Egypt and then guiding them back safely to home in Nazareth.
Thus both Mary and Joseph had received divine commands concerning the child Jesus and thus both of them must have experienced some fear and awe toward Jesus at least initially and then occasionally thereafter. Their feelings toward Jesus must have united them in a way unimaginable for a more typical husband and wife ‘team’.
They had a difficult task. They had to attempt to give the child as normal a childhood as possible. Every kid wants one thing: to have fun. Mary and Joseph must have found ways to do this for Jesus. He in turn must have sensed that he was treated as special by his parents despite their attempts to just treat him like any other kid. His dawning awareness of his special destiny was thus forged in the bonds of love that developed between the three of them, the Holy Family. These three souls, who had been imposed upon by God himself; knew a burden and a joy not granted to any other persons so far as I am aware. They were given commands by God, and they obeyed these commands despite the prophecies that a cross loomed over Jesus’ destiny.
Mary’s demeanor during Jesus childhood years seems to have been reflective: observing her boy grow in wisdom and stature through the years “she kept all these things in her heart..” The mysteries known and unknown to us therefore of Christ’s hidden life is kept in the heart of Mary.
Joseph’s adoption of Jesus helped to bring in the Kingdom of God. We all now can become sons of God as well, again via adoption or sanctification.
What was God’s purpose in placing his son Jesus in an adoptive family? Why not have Jesus be conceived like any other child? Wouldn’t that be consistent with the kenosis of the incarnation? In order to be fully human doesn’t it require a typical conception and a typical childhood etc?
The answer to these questions is ‘apparently not’. Consider the modern cases of test tube babies. Is anyone willing to say that the people born from this form of conception (of which now there are thousands) are not fully human? Then there is the huge array of anomalous conception routes from twinning to ectopic pregnancies none of which produce babies that are not human in the fullest sense of the word. Thus Jesus’ conception does not mean that he was not fully human.
So God placed Jesus with Mary and Joseph—Joseph being an adoptive father. Why did God do this? One reason might be that these two individuals were able to say yes! to God’s invitation to accept the child. It may be that god asked many people before he could find two who said Yes! That is one reason why we honor Joseph and Mary. They had learned obedience to a degree none of us can imagine.
Another reason why God placed Jesus in the Holy Family likely had to do with the relationship that developed between the three of them: Jesus, Mary and Joseph—a relationship the church must learn to mirror or realize as well. If God wanted to teach the church something by their examples the lesson likely concerns the complex relations that obtained between the three of them. Kereszty argues something like this (the Holy Family as model) as his answer as to the special mission of the Holy Family.
For me however the Holy Family functions as a model for Church only insofar as it models what to do with an awareness of a special destiny or vocation given to one from God himself. Consider what a burden the three of them had to carry. They all knew that Jesus was special and that that specialness would eventually entail both glory and suffering. That awareness of impending glory and suffering must have been almost too much to bear. There was a quality of glory now present but still not yet to that awareness. Later Jesus talked in the same way about the arrival of the kingdom of heaven—it was present but still not fully. That awareness of the presence but still not yet fulfilled quality of their experiences would have united the three of them on such a deep level that they became an example for us all.
Brown, R. (1997). An Introduction to the New Testament. New York: Doubleday.
Brown, Raymond. An Introduction to New Testament Christology. New York: Paulist Press, 1994. Brown, R., Fitzmeyer, J., and Murphy, R (Eds). (1990). The New Jerome Biblical Commentary. Prentice Hall, Upper Saddle River, NJ.
- Bauckham, “The Brothers and Sisters of Jesus: An Epiphanian Response to
- P. Meier,” Catholic Biblical Quarterly 56 (1994), pp. 686-700.
Catechism of the Catholic Church with Modifications from the Editio Typica. New York: Doubleday, 1997.
Coogan, Michael, ed. The New Oxford Annotated Bible. New Revised Standard Version with the Apocrypha Fourth Edition. New York: Oxford University Press, 2001.
Kehl, M. and Loser, W. (Eds). (1997). The von Balthasar reader. NY: The Crossword Publishing Company.
Kereszty, R. (2011). Jesus Christ. Fundamentals of Christology. Revised and updated third edition. Communio Book. St Paul’s Press, Staten Island new York.
- Meier, “The Brothers and Sisters of Jesus in Ecumenical Perspective,” Catholic Biblical Quarterly 54 (1992), pp. 26.http://ezproxy.sjcme.edu:2048/login?url=http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=rfh&AN=ATLA0000849059&site=ehost-live
Acknowledgement: This piece is excerpted and modified from a longer work by Augustinus submitted to St Joseph’s College in 2012